Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Breathing While Black: Rude and Frightful Encounters with the Police Recalled by Distinguished African Americans, 1860-2012

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Breathing While Black: Rude and Frightful Encounters with the Police Recalled by Distinguished African Americans, 1860-2012

Article excerpt

It is easier, perhaps, to understand the depth and persistence of African American sensitivity, fear, and grievance in regards to the police when testimony given by widely known and respected persons spanning several generations documents a history of disparate treatment compared to Whites in every corner of the nation. Humiliation, intimation, violence, and arbitrary enforcement of the law are what they experienced firsthand, and their wealth and fame did not spare them. Their horror stories of sorts, largely told in their own words and summarized by biographers, were never incomprehensible or unsympathetic to those who have opposed full racial equality. Civil rights demonstrators marching through the hostile White working class Chicago enclave of Bridgeport in 1965 were taunted with this rhyme:

   Oh, I wish I was an Alabama trooper
   That is what I'd truly like to be
   'Cause if I was an Alabama trooper
   Then I could shoot the niggers legally

Of course, many will remain indifferent to, or in denial about Black complaints of police discourtesy and brutality. Regardless, more than a century and a half of evidence provided by fifty-five noted individuals here, from Frederick Douglass to Tyler Perry, reflect the shared memory of African Americans that reinforce more than just the perception of a long history of police abuse---it dares anyone to try and prove that their bad experiences have been mere fantasies or incidents of little consequence. The evidence of this unfortunate history is with us:

Will Smith, actor, as a young man drive a nice car in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Take growing up in Philly, dealing with the police--where, one time, a cop pulled me over and, when I asked him, "Officer, did I do something?" he said, "You're a fucking nigger in a nice car. Now shut the fuck up until I figure out why I'm giving you a ticket." That I could live with, because I knew exactly what I was dealing with. It was up to me to make a decision about how to react. I did. I reported him to Internal Affairs.

"Will Smith" by Nancy Collins, Rolling Stone, December 10, 1998, p. 71.

James Baldwin, novelist-essayist, in Harlem in 1934.

When James was 10 years old, and encounter with two white policeman gave him his first bitter taste of racial violence. The officers spotted him playing by himself in an empty lot and decided to harass him. They taunted him with racial slurs, then beat him and left him on his back, "I can conceive of no Negro native to this country," he wrote in "The Harlem Ghetto," "who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the condition of his life" (James Baldwin by Lisa Rosset, Chelsea House, 1989, pp. 21-22).

Alvin Poussaint, Harvard psychiatry professor and author, circa 1965.

A menacing policeman stopped me outside my office in Jackson, Mississippi, and said, "What's your name?"

I said, "Dr. Poussaint."

And he said, "What's your first name, boy?"

My secretary, who was black and from Mississippi, started yanking on my arm. "Tell him your first name," she pleaded.

He put his hand on his gun and said, "What's your first name?"

Finally I said, "Alvin."

He said, "Okay, Alvin, next time you give us trouble, we're gonna take you downtown."

Then he spun around and walked away.

I could feel myself starting to tremble.

My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience (AARP/Sterling, 2004) by Juan Williams et al, p. 129.

Barry White, rhythm and blues singer. In Mobile, Alabama, in 1966 upon speaking to the White female phone operator regarding a long distance call.

I went to the phone booth and said into the mouthpiece, "Baby, get me area code 213," and gave her my number.

"Just a minute, sir. The lines are tied up." I sat there waiting for her to come back on the line when the police showed up in their patrol cars, tires screeching. …

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